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In the world of AI, a lot can happen in a year. Last year, at the beginning of Big Tech’s AI wars, Google announced during its annual I/O conference that it was throwing generative AI at everything, integrating it into its suite of products from Docs to email to e-commerce listings and its chatbot Bard. It was an effort to catch up with competitors like Microsoft and OpenAI, which had unveiled snazzy products like coding assistants and ChatGPT, the product that has done more than any other to ignite the current excitement about AI.

Since then, its ChatGPT competitor chatbot Bard (which, you may recall, temporarily wiped $100 billion off Google’s share price when it made a factual error during the demo) has been replaced by the more advanced Gemini. But, for me, the AI revolution hasn’t felt like one. Instead, it’s been a slow slide toward marginal efficiency gains. I see more autocomplete functions in my email and word processing applications, and Google Docs now offers more ready-made templates. They are not groundbreaking features, but they are also reassuringly inoffensive. 

Google is holding its I/O conference tomorrow, May 14, and we expect them to announce a whole new slew of AI features, further embedding it into everything it does. The company is tight-lipped about its announcements, but we can make educated guesses. There has been a lot of speculation that it will upgrade its crown jewel, Search, with generative AI features that could, for example, go behind a paywall. Perhaps we will see Google’s version of AI agents, a buzzy word that basically means more capable and useful smart assistants able to do more complex tasks, such as booking flights and hotels much as a travel agent would. 

Google, despite having 90% of the online search market, is in a defensive position this year. Upstarts such as Perplexity AI have launched their own versions of AI-powered search to rave reviews, Microsoft’s AI-powered Bing has managed to increase its market share slightly, and OpenAI is working on its own AI-powered online search function and is also reportedly in conversation with Apple to integrate ChatGPT into smartphones

There are some hints about what any new AI-powered search features might look like. Felix Simon, a research fellow at the Reuters Institute for Journalism, has been part of the Google Search Generative Experience trial, which is the company’s way of testing new products on a small selection of real users. 

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Last month, Simon noticed that his Google searches with links and short snippets from online sources had been replaced by more detailed, neatly packaged AI-generated summaries. He was able to get these results from queries related to nature and health, such as “Do snakes have ears?” Most of the information offered to him was correct, which was a surprise, as AI language models have a tendency to “hallucinate” (which means make stuff up), and they have been criticized for being an unreliable source of information. 

To Simon’s surprise, he enjoyed the new feature. “It’s convenient to ask [the AI] to get something presented just for you,” he says. 

Simon then started using the new AI-powered Google function to search for news items rather than scientific information.

For most of these queries, such as what happened in the UK or Ukraine yesterday, he was simply offered links to news sources such as the BBC and Al Jazeera. But he did manage to get the search engine to generate an overview of recent news items from Germany, in the form of a bullet-pointed list of news headlines from the day before. The first entry was about an attack on Franziska Giffey, a Berlin politician who was assaulted in a library. The AI summary had the date of the attack wrong. But it was so close to the truth that Simon didn’t think twice about its accuracy. 

A quick online search during our call revealed that the rest of the AI-generated news summaries were also littered with inaccuracies. Details were wrong, or the events referred to happened years ago. All the stories were also about terrorism, hate crimes, or violence, with one soccer result thrown in. Omitting headlines on politics, culture, and the economy seems like a weird choice.  

People have a tendency to believe computers to be correct even when they are not, and Simon’s experience is an example of the kinds of problems that might arise when AI models hallucinate. The ease of getting results means that people might unknowingly ingest fake news or wrong information. It’s very problematic if even people like Simon, who are trained to fact-check things and know how AI models work, don’t do their due diligence and assume information is correct. 

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Whatever Google announces at I/O tomorrow, there is immense pressure for it to be something that would justify its massive investment into AI. And after a year of experimenting, there also need to be serious improvements in making its generative AI tools more accurate and reliable. 

There are some people in the computer science community who say that hallucinations are an intrinsic part of generative AI that can’t ever be fixed, and that we can never fully trust these systems. But hallucinations will make AI-powered products less appealing to users. And it’s highly unlikely that Google will announce it has fixed this problem at I/O tomorrow. 

If you want to learn more about how Google plans to develop and deploy AI, come and hear from its vice president of AI, Jay Yagnik, at our flagship AI conference, EmTech Digital. It’ll be held at the MIT campus and streamed live online next week on May 22-23.  I’ll be there, along with AI leaders from companies like OpenAI, AWS, and Nvidia, talking about where AI is going next. Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, will also join MIT Technology Review’s executive editor Amy Nordrum for an exclusive interview on stage. See you there! 

Readers of The Algorithm get 30% off tickets with the code ALGORITHMD24.

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